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02 April 2012

Common mistakes #8: “variant”

It’s Monday morning, so we must put away the bottle of Glenfiddich and get back to work, starting with a very common mistake which Russians make when speaking English.
     Most use the word “variant” in the same way that they use the Russian word вариант. They should not do so as the English word “variant” means something slightly different from “alternative” or “option” or “choice”, which is what Russians most commonly wish to say when using “variant”. Другой вариант should not be translated as “other variant”, but “other option”, or “alternative” (remember that to use “other alternative” there have to be three options, as “alternative” already implies a second choice; only a third can be the “other” alternative). Similarly, хороший вариант should be rendered: “good choice”, not “good variant”, which sounds clunky in English, to put it mildly.
     I make this point today since, in between gentle, contemplative sips of Glenfiddich, I spent much of a cloudy, damp weekend reading An Economic History of the USSR by Alec Nove (as he called himself in Britain). This may sound dull, but Professor Nove’s book is one of those rare works on economic history that is written both readably and clearly. Part of that clarity comes from his use of language, including the word “variant”.
     This is particularly impressive as the good Professor was actually Russian, having been born in St Petersburg during the First World War. He was one of the many émigrés who, then as now, used their skills and intelligence for the benefit of the world outside Russia. In his case, it was Scotland that gained, as he was for twenty years the internationally renowned Professor Economics at the University of Glasgow—where I once briefly met him, with his cheerful, bustling manner and uncontrolled mane of white hair. He was a great loss to his native land, as he was to Scotland when he died in 1994.
     Be that as it may, on page 126 (Penguin edition) Professor Nove wrote: “The five-year plan, in its optimal variant adopted as late as the spring of 1929, envisaged….” Likewise, on page 135: “It proved necessary to formulate the plan in two versions: the initial variant and the optimal variant. The initial variant was optimistic enough. It was rejected by the sixteenth party conference in favour of the more ambitious version…”
     Correctly used these days, a variant is a variation on an original idea, plan or thing. In the latter category, it is correct to speak, for example, of the manual or automatic variants of the Range- Rover or Toyota Land-cruiser (though in polite society in Scotland is rarely polite to mention Toyota 4x4s—but that is a different issue). You can choose the manual option if you like, but also the automatic variant. But to think of the Range Rover as a better variant than the Toyota is incorrect. “Variant” is not an alternative course of action or choice in any general sense.  It is best thought of as a synonym for “version”, as Профессор Александр Новаковский correctly understood.
     Incidentally, Professor Nove makes another important, if unrelated, point that English-speaking readers who wish to understand Russian might like to note. On page 32, he talks of Lenin’s idea of “workers’ control”, saying: “The Russian word kontrol’ means not a takeover but inspection and checking (like the French contrôle des billets)… yet now and again, kontrol’ shades into control, developing into complete regulation of production and distribution…”
     What an interesting weekend I had, Glenfiddich or no Glenfiddich!

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